A new Asynchronous normal

However, I’ve been writing about the return to the office at WorkSpace Connect, and my latest article suggests we pivot (I think that’s the new in word) to this mode of sharing as the default, unless there’s a clear need for synchronous technology, or for meeting physically back in the office. After all, this is what most existing fully remote firms already do.
I was listening to Jason Fried from BaseCamp talk about this at RemoteCon today.

He was saying too many companies try to recreate the office remotely. You can’t do that, they’re different platforms with different rules and benefits. The problem is we don’t see the challenges involved in the old ways of doing things – we don’t realise they may not be optimal.

The rules of remote working are the total opposite of existing rules. You can’t just digitise office processes to make them work in an office setting. So you have to revisit rules and previous ideas and challenge them – are they good for us?

Eg Jason isn’t a fan of meetings. But he’s less of a fan of remote meetings as they’re exhausting. The key therefore is asynchronous communication. Basecamp as a company do hardly anything real-time and nearly everything asynchronously. Basecamp as a product includes chat but they hardly ever use it – instead they write on a message board and put comments on todo’s and content, etc.

This means everyone has their own time and their own day to themselves. The more real-time stuff you do, the less tie people have for their own work as they’re being pulled off it. So let people control their own day and their own time and get back to you when they want to. Slack and chat are terrible – using them just causes anxiety and stress and people don’t have time to work.

If you write something down, you have it for ever. If it’s a meeting and you’ve discussed it, it’s rare that you’ll have it recorded. Writing is great to new employees too. If the history is verbal it’s difficult to get up to speed. When you can read it quickly you can understand how things work. yes, you can document the meeting but then this is a separate step. If you communicate by writing then the writing is the document, so it’s a time saver.

Jason’s fundamental principles for remote work are respecting people, trusting them, and communicating more slowly. In terms of trust, we need to look at the work, not the person. And use clear communication, be thorough and don’t rush. And value small teams.

Someone asked about speed of decision making when working remote. Why is it important? Who says you have to make all decisions super fast? Yes, there will be times for that, like in an emergency. But most situations are not like that. It’s better to sleep on most decisions – ‘letting it marinate’ – as you get more clarity. Why does everything seem to urgent? – is it right? Am I paying attention to the right things? And leaders don’t have to make rapid decisions for everyone else.

Remote leaders need more empathy and trust – we’ve got good people and they’ll figure it out – give people more space vs looking over their shoulders. A bit more of a hands off approach. But mainly the same as face-to-face. We’re building things with people so need to treat them right. You can’t say I don’t trust people when I can’t see them – no, you didn’t trust them in the first place.

There are downsides of remote working. People can feel isolated and disconnected. It’s difficult in many companies now as people have been thrust into home working. But in future, during hiring, we need to make sure people are comfortable with it. And we all need to pay attention to social situations. When we’re together, we can laugh together to take a walk together which are difficult remotely. We need to bridge over these gaps. Eg, Basecamp 3.0 includes auto-checkins which includes questions to ask on a regular basis – what people did the last weekend, what books they’ve read, if they’ve seen a movie recently. These can replace some of the social cues of face-to-face working. If we don’t do that, it’s easy to forget. So we need to help people understand they’re working with other human beings, and create these moments, not just hope they’ll happen.

I asked Jason about his views on whether you can create and maintain relationships just over asynchronous tools, or whether you need to use social technologies, or still have face-to-face meetings, too? He noted that we don’t even have the choice to sit down with people now. So it’s an opportunity to explore what we can do, to see what’s possible. The crisis is making employees and companies more resilient. Having office space can be helpful, but there are downsides too. Eg working remote, you can have people all over the place.

Sitting down with people is wonderful, we’re social beings, but there are other people in our lives too. We don’t have to get this benefit from our colleagues.

So how do we develop these relationships together? Asynchronous tools can play a role. But it can be through synchonous tools – they often jump on on video or a phone call – phone is a  better tool. On video, you need to look at the green dot of webcam vs someone else. And he thinks better when he’s moving around but you can’t do that in video chat. And meeting face-to-face helps occasionally but you have to do with what you have.

Eg someone else asked about trying to replicate the physical in the virtual, a colleague of theirs set up a virtual kitchen and they spend at least 5 mins in chit chat every meeting – which drains them – what would Jason say to colleagues stop this effort of porting environments? Doing something artificial, forcing it, doesn’t work. Again, you just need to be honest with each other, just say this isn’t working for me, can we not do it anymore?, or it just build up resentment.


However, the key insight that led me to my article about the return to the office is that we shouldn’t just think about individuals working in the office or from home, we also need to consider the need for people to work together in groups and networks.
And the key conclusion form this is that just switching people in and out of the office every couple of weeks isn’t going to be terribly effective. Instead of this:
  • Individuals working in functions can do most of their work using asyncronous technologies – they don’t need to spend all their working lives stuck in meetings (even truer during the pandemic than it was before).
  • Communities can do a lot of their relationship cultivating on social networking systems but do need access to small meeting rooms to meet other community members, and some use of larger rooms for the whole community to get together.
  • Networks can also use enterprise social networks, and where possible, can be supported by access to large spaces for the whole network to meet up physically too.
  • True (horizontal / cross-functional) teams can use asyncronous and social technologies but really need to focus on synchronous communications, through technology and by getting the whole team together into a large meeting room. This is the one group that it may make sense to swap in and out of office in rotational cycles.
So, we might get to something like this perhaps?


By the way, there’s nothing here for individual offices / cubes / workstations as they don’t support anything that technology doesn’t provide. Instead, this space is converted into new, larger meeting rooms for horizontal teams, and open spaces for distributed networks.
All of this may change in future – not necessarily because of a vaccine – I think most of the above logic still makes a lot of sense in any situation, but down to expected advances in technology, including holograms, AR and VR systems, and as I suggest in the article, even maybe a return to Second Life?
(This was me and my wife, Sandra, back in 2007:
Jon Ingham
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I graduated from Imperial College, London in 1987 and joined Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) as a systems development consultant. After ten years in IT, change and then HR consulting, I joined Ernst & Young as an HR Director, working firstly in the UK, and then, based in Moscow, covering the former USSR.More recently, I have worked as Head of HR Consulting for Penna and Director of Human Capital Consulting for Buck Consultants (the HR consultancy owned by ACS).

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